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New Article in Senses of Cinema 76 – “Being Elizabeth Bishop”

Saturday, September 19th, 2015

I have a new article on Barbara Hammer’s new feature film Welcome to This House in Senses of Cinema.

As I write, in part, “Barbara Hammer’s Welcome to This House: A Film on Elizabeth Bishop (2015) is that rarity among documentary films – rather than the usual succession of talking heads, shot in a utilitarian fashion, as befits its subject the film is a primarily poetic project, which inhabits the world of Bishop and her poetry, entranced by the beauty of life in all its forms.

As the film’s press materials note, ‘Welcome to This House is a feature documentary film on the homes and loves of poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979), about life in the shadows, and the anxiety of art making without full self-disclosure, filmed in Bishop’s ‘best loved homes’ in the US, Canada, and Brazil.’ It is also much more than that; it is an act of love and resurrection, in which Bishop emerges from the shadows as a fully rounded personage, freed from the constraints of society which so often failed to accept her for who she truly was.

In the film’s opening sequence, for example, photos of Bishop and the covers of her books give way to a view from the front porch of her home in Nova Scotia, with flowers and the image of a young Elizabeth intertwined in a tapestry of memory and abstract wonder. As the scene progresses, there are equally dreamlike images of her typewriter, and then a child’s hand writing ‘Elizabeth’ on a chalk slate, as the soundtrack hums and whirs with the sounds of an indolent, mesmeric summer. This gives way to reminiscences of how Bishop was left with her grandparents as a child, deprived of a mother and father, and how she grew up in world of her own creation as a result.

There are, of course, numerous archival materials interwoven throughout the film, but more than anything, Welcome to This House is a film about being Elizabeth Bishop, about finding one’s self as an artist, something that Barbara Hammer has being doing for her entire life, over a body of work that covers more than 80 films and four decades of continuous artistic production. In many ways, Welcome to This House is the sort of film that could only be made by a director after years of patient dedication; effortlessly mixing the past, the present, the imaginary and the real to evoke the inner life of Elizabeth Bishop, all the while demonstrating Hammer’s absolutely assured grasp of the moving image.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Welcome To This House: A Film About Elizabeth Bishop by Barbara Hammer

Saturday, July 11th, 2015

Barbara Hammer, one of my favorite filmmakers, has a new film out.

Barbara Hammer has been making brilliant and uncompromising independent films since the 1960s, and is still going strong, as evidenced by her recent retrospectives at The Museum of Modern Art, as well as other venues, but now comes the news that Hammer has released a new feature film on the poet Elizabeth Bishop, which I have yet to see, but which I look forward to with great anticipation.

Her work is seemingly everywhere: in the past few years, Hammer was honored with a month long retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City from September 11-October 13, 2010, and in February 2012 she had a month long retrospective at The Tate Modern in London, followed by retrospectives in Paris at Jeu de Paume in June 2012 and the Toronto International Film Festival in October 2013.

As the press materials for the film by Monica Nolan note, “poet Elizabeth Bishop has gained notoriety as much for her tempestuous romance with Lota de Macedo Soares as for her poetry. While that affair inspired a book and a movie (Reaching for the Moon), this new documentary broadens the focus and puts the Lota affair in context. Frameline24 Award recipient Barbara Hammer (whose previous films at Frameline are too numerous to list!) creates a layered portrait of the person behind the poet, from her childhood in Nova Scotia to her death in 1979.

Bishop described herself as ‘timorously kicking around the coastlines of the world,’ and the film is loosely organized around her stays in Nova Scotia, Key West, Brazil, and Cambridge—the homes she made for herself and the lovers she took. Never ‘out’ as a lesbian—the concept would have been foreign to the writer who graduated from Vassar in the thirties—Bishop nonetheless actively pursued women, from her first summer-camp crush to the May-December romance that was her last affair.

Hammer examines Bishop from all angles, interviewing everyone from literary luminaries like Marie-Claire Blais and Edmund White to Lota’s aged former maid. Hammer pulls the viewer into Bishop’s world, blending present day footage of each location with archival photos, and recreating moments in the writer’s life. Throughout the film we hear Bishop’s own words, read by Kathleen Chalfant, revealing yet another facet of a complicated and passionate woman.”

Barbara Hammer (right) with Florrie Burke. Photo: Joyce Culver.

This sounds like a typically brilliant film from Hammer, who has made over 80 moving image works in a career that spans 40 years, and is considered a pioneer of queer cinema. In the meantime, you should check out Barbara Hammer’s latest doings as chronicled on her website by clicking here, or on the image above – with news of her latest doings in the world of cinema, someone who is courageously moving forward in an era in which the arts are often pushed aside by the incessant pursuit of comic book films and other non-demanding escapist entertainment. Want some real nutrition for a change? Then check out Barbara Hammer’s work, and see what you’ve been missing.

Barbara Hammer – one of the most important independent filmmakers working in cinema today.

Norman McLaren’s Pas de deux (1968) – A Forgotten Classic

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Norman McLaren’s classic short film Pas de deux deserves a wider audience.

Growing up, this film was everywhere, and now it seems to have vanished from our collective memory. It’s a superb short film by the gifted animator Norman McLaren, created near the end of his long career at the National Film Board of Canada. As the NFB notes, in this hypnotic film McLaren uses “cinema effects that are all that you would expect from this master of improvisation in music and illustration. By exposing the same frames as many as ten times, the artist creates a multiple image of the ballerina and her partner (Margaret Mercier and Vincent Warren).” Pas de deux received 17 awards, including the 1969 BAFTA Award for Best Animated Film and an Academy Award nomination.

This is just another of the many, many brilliant short and feature films that have been plowed under by the relentless onslaught of mainstream multiplex fare; and while there are numerous bootleg copies of this film circulating on the web, even one with a supposedly “enhanced” music track, which one commenter rightly noted was “an insult to McLaren,” this is the original version, as uploaded by the NFB to Vimeo, and thus available to all to watch, and marvel at. Pas de deux was made near the end of the photochemical era of moving image production, and McLaren and his associates push the limits of conventional optical printing to their absolute edge in this film, which remains as entrancing as it was when first created.

There really isn’t much more to say; I’ll let the film speak for itself.

An Interview with Denis Côté – Joy of Man’s Desiring

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

I have a new interview with Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté in Senses of Cinema #75.

As I wrote, in part, “Denis Côté is a young Canadian filmmaker who has burst onto the international film scene with a group of challenging and innovative movies in the past few years. Born 16 November, 1973 in New Brunswick, Canada, Côté began his career with a group of short films, and made his first feature in 2005, Drifting States (Les états Nordiques), which won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival.

Since then, Côté has worked a number of commercial and/or personal projects, most notably Curling (2010), a father/daughter family drama that was exceptionally well received by audiences and critics alike; Bestiare (2012), a ‘docufiction’ – that’s my own term – film centering on the animals who populate a tourist destination zoo in Canada; Vic+Flo Saw A Bear (Vic+Flo ont vu un ours, 2013), a harrowing tale of two women trying to make it on the outside after a stint in prison, and how the world conspires against them to make redemption – at least in life – almost impossible. Vic+Flo Saw A Bear was probably Côté’s most successful film to date, and was screened at more than 90 festivals around the world.

Most recently, Côté completed the superb Joy of Man’s Desiring (aka Que ta joie demeure, 2014), which documents, after a fashion, daily life on the factory floor, as workers methodically partner with their machines to create the staples of daily existence. In all these projects, Côté offers his own unique take on concepts of narrative in his fiction films, and reportage in his documentaries, to create a series of films that are at once open-ended, mysterious, and subtly disturbing.

As of this writing, Joy of Man’s Desiring is only available on Vimeo, distributed by EyeSteelFilm. After seeing the film two or three times, I was so impressed with Côté’s audacious mixture of real events and lightly staged fictional sequences to create an entirely alternate reality that I contacted him, and asked if he would discuss the film with me; he agreed, and this interview was conducted on 4 April, 2015.

I’d like to talk with you about your most recent film, the fictionalized documentary Joy of Man’s Desiring, which for me is one of the most stunning explorations of daily factory life I’ve ever seen. So, my first question is if you’ve ever seen Godard’s British Sounds (aka See You at Mao, 1970), the only other film to my knowledge that tries to tackle the workplace in this fashion, although, in my opinion, it overloads the soundtrack with Marxist slogans and the usual Godardian intercut titles – yet the sequence on the car assembly line is really powerful. Have you seen it, and was it an influence?

I was a film critic for a decade while making short films. I have seen an enormous number of art films. When you are young, you get easily confused and overwhelmed by so many influences and desires to pay homage or copy your favorite filmmakers. But being the age I am today, having more experience and a stronger personality, I can definitely see I am not corrupted by direct influences anymore. It’s a bit of a cliché to think that filmmakers are strongly conscious about references of any sort. So, to answer your question, I am not familiar with British Sounds, but I will do my homework.

Joy of Man’s Desiring deals with blue-collar work, and with the machines that seem to dominate, and define the workplace. Indeed, the film begins with a series of trance inducing zooms in on machines that seem to rule the entire work environment. Were you introducing them as the controlling personalities?

Not being familiar with those environments, I decided to start the film with the most spectacular and fascinating point of entry: the machines and their primitive sounds. I felt the need to look at things like a four year-old would. For the first three minutes I let myself, and the viewer be amazed by the power, strength and perfection of those machines. I wanted to put the audience in a hypnotic mode right away.

As you said in another interview, you were struck by “the terrifying idea that we all have to work and eventually find serenity, rest, a sense of accomplishment.” While it’s true enough that we all – or most of us – have to work, do you think that everyone finds “serenity, rest, [and] a sense of accomplishment”? For most people in factory jobs, it seems like a continual struggle just to keep up with the machine.

I do think we can find a personal sense of realization and/or accomplishment in any type of work. It’s really easy to think that machines are evil and kill human feelings, free will and ambition. I had those preconceptions myself before entering those environments, but you would be surprised to know how many people told me they consciously look for a repetitive job all day long. They told me those are the best jobs, because you don’t have to think all day long. Nighttime is for family matters and problems! Who am I to judge such thinking? I knew my film would not be frontally political, activist or judgmental and had to be more of a hypnotic journey.”

You can read the rest of this fascinating discussion by clicking here, or on the image above.

Roberty Downey Sr.’s Pound (1970)

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

Robert Downey Sr. (center) with cast members on the set of his film Pound.

As readers of this blog know, I’m a friend and fan of the work of Robert Downey Sr., whose best known film after all these years is Putney Swope. I first met Bob back in 1969, right after the success of Putney, when he was editing Pound in a cutting room in the West 50s in Manhattan. We hit it off, and remain friends to this day, but although I’ve written about a lot of his other work, I’ve never really tacked Pound, which is simultaneously one of his most disturbing and ambitious films, and was – at least in my mind – a highly unlikely follow-up to Putney Swope. But at this point in his career, Bob could write his own ticket, and the result is one of the darkest, most unsettling visions of humanity in crisis that ever hit the screen – yet to this day, Pound is almost impossible to see.

As Rich Drees noted in a 2006 article on Pound, the plot of the film is simple: “set in a New York City dog pound, 18 dogs, played by human actors, wait to be adopted. Part existential comedy, part allegory, the dogs include a punch drunk Boxer (Stan Gottlieb), a hyperactive Mexican Hairless (a scene stealing Lawrence Wolf) and a sleek Greyhound (Antonio Fargas). Meanwhile, the city is being terrorized by a serial killer dubbed The Honky Killer (James Green). Pound also features the debut of performance of Downey’s son Robert Jr. as a puppy temporarily held at the pound.”

But that’s just the set-up. Hovering over all the characters is the continual threat of death from “the needle” – they’re not so much waiting to be adopted, as waiting to be executed. A terrier advises that they should revolt against their captors and escape, while an airedale argues that their deaths are not imminent, and a pardon is forthcoming. Throughout the film, there a number of mournful musical numbers which verge on nihilistic vaudeville, interspersed with a series of philosophical diatribes on the nature of existence, the transience of life, and the ways in which we’re all in a prison of one sort or another, whether we wish to admit it or not.

The end of the film is terrifying, as all of their ranting against the caprices of fate comes to naught. Without warning, a guard peremptorily pulls a switch that sends poisonous gas into the holding chamber, and one by one, the animals die an agonizing death, with each “dog” given a last, wistful closeup as they expire. Downey then cuts to a final sequence on a train to nowhere, as the “dogs” sit in their seats, bound for who knows where – heaven? hell? limbo? – and a candy barker walks through the aisle with a megaphone singing the 1930s song “Just One More Chance,” the lyrics of which, in part, lament that “we spend our lives in groping for happiness / I found it once and tossed it aside / I paid for it with hours of loneliness / I’ve nothing to hide.” And on this unresolved note, the film ends.

Not surprisingly, Pound was summarily rejected by the sponsoring studio, MGM, who for some reason, Downey told me, thought that the film would be an animated cartoon. When they saw the finished result, MGM dumped it on the bottom half of a double bill with Federico Fellini’s Satryicon, to Downey’s delight. Yet not surprisingly, given the film’s incredibly bleak outlook on life, Pound has never had a VHS or DVD release, although it was available as a streaming download on Netflix for a time, but has now been withdrawn.

Indeed, as Drees notes, it’s a miracle that the film exists at all, since “the only print of the film that Downey could locate was found in his ‘cameraman’s ex-wife’s closet . . . a 35mm print that was dead.’ Although the print itself was deemed unprojectable, it was able to be digitally scanned and restored. ‘So they put the color back in,’ says Downey. ‘They cleaned up the sound a bit too. Technology is great, it’s just the movies aren’t getting any better. It’s only because of digital technology that some of this stuff can be saved, because most of the colors just go. Most of my stuff in color other than Greasers Palace (1972), I hate the color. I love black and white.’”

Based on a play Downey wrote very early in his career, The Comeuppance, which was produced Off-Off Broadway in 1961, Pound betrays its theatrical origins, and has strong links to Sartre’s play No Exit, as well as to Downey’s even earlier efforts, such as his first play about two nuclear missiles in a silo, waiting go off, talking to each other about the destruction they will inevitably inflict on humankind. Pound can certainly be seen as an extension of that, and it’s no wonder that it was so roundly rejected by the general public, and got an NC-17 rating – it’s a real warning that the only one you can really trust in life is yourself.

There are bootlegs of the film, of course, drifting around on the web, and today, the film’s major curiosity draw seems to be the brief appearance of Bob Downey Jr. in a small role as a puppy – but the film is much more than that. It’s certainly not a masterpiece, and Downey himself has expressed definite reservations about Pound, but all in all, it’s one hell of a scary vision of life, and a real outlier in film history – the work of someone chasing not success, but his own vision, consequences be damned. As Downey said of his work as a filmmaker, “after being thrown out of the house, four schools and the United States Army, I discovered that I was on the right track.”

“I just think he’s one of our great American directors” — Paul Thomas Anderson

The Films of Jim Krell at Anthology – At Last!

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

A sold out audience for the films of Jim Krell at Anthology Film Archives – 4/17/2015.

At last, in their first projection since a screening at the Rutgers University in 1982, six of Jim Krell’s films were shown to a large, receptive, and deeply enthusiastic audience at Manhattan’s Anthology Film Archive on April 17, 2015. Krell’s films are such utterly original works that the chance to see them should simply not be overlooked, not least because they were created in 16mm, and were screened in that format, something that is increasingly rare in the 21st century.

I curated the screening, in addition to presenting an introductory lecture offering an overview of Krell’s work, as someone who witnessed the creation of many of the films included in the program. Sadly, the prints of some of Krell’s earliest films, such as Paper Palsy and Shoreline of China, seem to have been lost in the thirty or so years since their last projection.

The originals for these early films, however, are happily all in Anthology’s collection of Krell’s materials; perhaps, someday, they will be printed up again. Nevertheless, what we saw was astounding, and demonstrates conclusively that a major retrospective of Krell’s work is long, long overdue.

One of the most original and iconoclastic figures of the New American Cinema, Jim Krell created work that is simultaneously so important, and yet so unknown, that this screening constitutes a major event, closing a significant gap in experimental film history. Starting in the early 1970s, Krell created a series of mysterious and rigorous films that defy written description, visionary works that conjure up an entirely different vision of the physical universe.

During that time, I had the opportunity to watch him at work on several occasions. What always impressed me (or perhaps ‘astonished’ is a better word) concerning Krell’s shooting methods was the intrinsic speed and seemingly random technique he brought to his work, creating films with offhand precision that both challenged and engaged the viewer.

Now living in Italy, Krell has long since moved on to other pursuits, but during the white hot period in which he turned out one amazing film after another in a veritable torrent of work, Krell created a singular vision that is all the more impressive because each of his films is entirely different from any other of his works; he never does the same thing twice. So the chance to see, and save, his work, is something that isn’t to be taken lightly.

Thanks to all at Anthology, including Jed Rapfogel, Andrew Lampert, Sarah Halpern, and the superb projectionists who really brought Jim’s films to life on this memorable night; I really do hope this will be the first of many more screenings of his work. You can read more about Krell’s work in my book The Exploding Eye: A Re-Visionary History of 1960s American Experimental Cinema.

Jim Krell is a genuine American original, in every sense of the word.

New Filmmakers, New Works – The Film Makers’ Cooperative

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

Looking for something new in the way of filmic visions?

The Film Makers’ Cooperative has been around since the early 1960s, when it was founded by Jonas Mekas and a host of other filmmakers; I myself was a member of the Coop for many years. It remains perhaps the most egalitarian distribution company in the United States, which is in itself a remarkable achievement. The Coop is open to all; anyone can submit a film, there are regular screenings throughout the year, and here’s one such example above. Of course, you have to be in Manhattan to take advantage of this, but The Coop stands alone as a beacon for independent film -willing to take any risk to bring more cutting edge works before the public. So if you’re in New York City at the end of the month, why not check out this screening, and see what some new people in the field are up to? I’m so tired of writing about the hegemony of the mainstream cinema; here’s your chance to supportive an alternative series of visions, and young filmmakers, and at a cost of just $10 – what you would pay for an ordinary film.

The Film Makers’ Cooperative is keeping the spirit of truly independent cinema alive.

“A Lioness on the Prowl”: Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

I have an article out today on Jonathan Glazer’s new film Under The Skin in Film International.

As I write, in part, “Under The Skin is being sold on the basis of a simple premise, which is true on the face of it, but also offers just the merest suggestion of what the film is in its totality. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien inhabiting a woman’s body, who trolls through the Scottish countryside and cities searching for young men, enticing them with the promise of a sexual encounter, and then killing them for food.

In this, she is monitored by another alien, who takes on the form of a sinister motorcyclist (played by real life champion cyclist Jeremy McWilliams), who is there to make sure that Johansson’s character stays on track with her mission. That’s pretty much the plot, or as much of it as I want to give away, but there’s a great deal more going on here than this bare outline would suggest.

Firstly, there’s no real sex in the film, just the promise of sex. Although Johansson lures several men into her white van during the first third of the film, and then takes them back to her flat, ostensibly for sex, nothing really happens; the men strip off and approach Johansson, who backs away from them, as the men sink into some sort of primordial ooze that swallows them up, and then reduces them to fleshy pulp for otherworldly consumption. Indeed, there is more frontal male nudity here than female, and it’s clear that one of the many things that the film is interested in is the fetishization of sex; Johansson’s simulacric image has been created as nothing more than a stock male fantasy.

We get only one glimpse of the actual harvesting process, in which two men, both victims, are now in a sort of limbo, and desperately attempt to touch each other to make some sort of contact, and perhaps escape the trap they’ve fallen into. But no such luck; in an instant, one of the men is reduced to nothing more than a human husk, and the pulp of his body is sucked through a chute into a door of some kind, food for Johansson’s cohorts in a distant galaxy.

Although there are a number of scenes in the film in which Johansson is nude, they’re sequences in which, as an alien, she examines her new body, and wonders at its construction, and why it’s so alluring to her victims. In the opening third of the film, she is utterly without humanity, clubbing one man to death on a beach and leaving an infant baby to be swept out into the tide without even the slightest shred of remorse. But then again, she’s not human – she doesn’t understand the meaning of the word.”

This is a remarkable film, but you’ll have to seek it out; see it as soon as you can.

Gutai Art Exhibition at The Guggenheim Museum

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

I recently saw a stunning show of Gutai Art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

As Ming Tiampo, Associate Professor, Art History, Carleton University, Ottawa, and Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator, Asian Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York wrote of the exhibition, “Gutai: Splendid Playground presents the creative spectrum of Japan’s most influential avant-garde collective of the postwar era. Founded by the visionary artist Yoshihara Jirō in 1954, the Gutai group was legendary in its own time. Its young members explored new art forms combining performance, painting, and interactive environments, and realized an ‘international common ground’ of experimental art through the worldwide reach of their exhibition and publication activities. Against the backdrop of wartime totalitarianism, Gutai forged an ethics of creative freedom, breaking through myriad boundaries to create some of the most exuberant works and events in the history of Japanese and international avant-garde art. Yoshihara’s Please Draw Freely (1956/2013), a collective drawing on a freestanding signboard reconceived for the Guggenheim’s rotunda and created by visitors, invites adults and children to collaborate, think, and imagine for themselves.

The Gutai Art Association (active 1954–72) originated in the cosmopolitan town of Ashiya, near Osaka, in western Japan. Spanning two generations, the group totaled 59 Japanese artists over its 18-year history. The name Gutai literally means ‘concreteness’ and captures the direct engagement with materials its members were experimenting with around the time of its founding in 1954. From its earliest festival-like events, Gutai artists sought to break down the barriers between art, the ordinary public, and everyday life, and continuously took on new artistic challenges using the body in direct action with materials, time and space, and nature and technology. Charting Gutai’s creation of visual, conceptual, and theoretical terrains, this exhibition is organized throughout the museum in chronological and thematic sections: Play, Network, Concept, the Concrete, Performance Painting, and Environment Art.

The outdoor exhibitions of 1955 and 1956 literally set the stage for the group’s artistic strategies. Held in a pine grove park in Ashiya, these events brought art outside and released it from its confines, like Motonaga Sadamasa’s magisterial Work (Water). The Guggenheim commissioned the artist to recreate this work for the rotunda, where he hangs common, polyethylene tubes of varying widths filled with brightly-colored water between the rotunda levels, making giant brushstrokes out of catenaries in the open air that catch the sunlight (Work [Water], 1956/2011).

Moving from what Yoshihara decried as ‘fraudulent . . . appearances’ to lived reality, Gutai artists invented ways to go beyond contemporary styles of abstract painting into concrete pictures, blurring representational significance by incorporating raw matter, as well as time and space, as the stuff of art. Tanaka Atsuko’s Work (Bell) (1955/1993), reimagines painting as an acoustic composition of living sound through a sequential ringing of electric alarm bells wired along the entire expanse of Rotunda Level 2. Her interests in schematic and technical representation, wiring systems, lights, and the human form reached a pinnacle in her best-known work, Electric Dress (1956). The artist wore this spectacular costume made of flashing incandescent light bulbs painted in bright yellow, green, red, and blue for her performance during Gutai Art on the Stage (1957), whose documentary film is projected on Rotunda Level 5.

Like Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism, Gutai rejected psychic automatism for acts of corporeal materiality in the real world. Yoshihara’s involvement with the revitalization of Japanese traditional arts, specifically Japanese calligraphy, also informed his idea of art making as an unmediated experiential encounter between artist, gesture, and material. Shiraga Kazuo’s Untitled (1957), made by the artist painting on the floor with his bare feet, or Murakami Saburō’s Passage (1956), a performance painting made by the artist flinging himself through taut paper screens, both demonstrate Gutai’s call to release the ’scream of matter itself.’ In the context of live events, Gutai artists extended their objectives to theater, music, and film. The Gutai Card Box (1962) transformed the act of viewing paintings into an interaction, with the viewer purchasing a work from the artist hidden inside a vending machine.

As the global pioneers of environmental art, Gutai’s participatory environments take the form of organic or geometric abstract sculptures incorporating kinetic, light, and sound art, turning exhibition spaces into chaotic dens of screeching, pulsing, machine-like organisms. Yoshida Minoru’s erotic machine-sculpture Bisexual Flower (1969) mines the psychedelic effects of this approach. Gutai environments drew from contemporary architecture, technology, and urban design to promote a futuristic, space-age aesthetic. This can be seen in Nasaka Senkichirō’s giant armature composed of aluminum plumbing pipes punctured with holes, broadcasting a music composition as it zigzags its way up the exhibition space. This site of creativity is what Shiraga called ‘a splendid playground’ and what Yoshihara sought as a ‘free site that can contribute to the progress of humanity.’”

I was lucky enough to see the show — which ran from February 15–May 8, 2013 — on its last day of exhibition; I was unaware at the time that the show would soon be dismantled, but I was stunned by the originality, lack of commercialism, and genuine sense of wonder that the show displayed, which was also documented in numerous short films and videos projected throughout the museum. The Gutai movement was clearly very much ahead of the curve in terms of art in the United States, and in the happenings and performance pieces of the late 1950s and early 1960s done in the US, you can more than a little of Gutai’s influence.

However, due to the fact the international boundaries were more defined during the pre-web era than they are now, very little of Gutai’s output made it to the United States, except for those artists who visited Japan during the period when the group was active, and obviously took home notes. The other aspect of the Gutai movement that’s fascinating is that they knew when they had accomplished ewhat they wanted to do, and having worked continuously on creating boundary-breaking art since 1954, called a halt to the group’s activities in 1972, rather than just continuing on as a commercial entity. This is art at it’s purest, most genuine, and most affecting.

Click here, or on the image above, for a video on this exceptional show.

Taylor Mead 1924 – 2013

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Taylor Mead, center in the photograph above from the 1960s, and one of the authentic stars of the American underground film, has died at the age of 88.

As Elaine Woo wrote, in a sharply observed and deeply sympathetic obituary in The Los Angeles Times on May 11, 2013, “Taylor Mead, an underground cinema legend whose comic charm and sense of the surreal inspired Andy Warhol and other seminal figures in the alternative film world, died Wednesday in Denver. He was 88. A fixture of bohemian New York who was also a poet and artist, Mead was visiting family in Colorado when he had a stroke, said his niece, Priscilla Mead.

Called ‘the Charlie Chaplin of the 1960s underground,’ Mead was an elfin figure with kewpie-doll eyes who appeared, by his count, in 130 films, starting with the 1960 art house classic The Flower Thief. In a review for the Village Voice, film critic J. Hoberman pronounced him ‘the first underground movie star.’

He later became one of Warhol’s first superstars, appearing in films such as Tarzan and Jane Regained … Sort Of and Lonesome Cowboys. He also was known for his work in Ron Rice’s The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man and Robert Downey Sr.’s Babo 73. Indie auteur Jim Jarmusch, who cast Mead in a moving vignette that closed his 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes, considered Mead one of his heroes.

A dropout from a life of privilege, Mead allied himself with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and other early leaders of the San Francisco Beat scene of the 1950s before settling in New York to eke out a living as a member of its thriving arts underground. He was a familiar face on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he wandered the streets with a notebook, read his poetry in coffeehouses – often against a background of a Charles Mingus recording – and fed feral cats in the predawn hours.

‘Taylor was a spark who inspired filmmakers, poets and artists on both coasts,’ said Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archive, which sponsored a Mead retrospective last fall. ‘He saw his life as his art and his art as his life and didn’t separate them the way we do today.’ He was the subject of Excavating Taylor Mead, a 2005 documentary by William Kirkley that knits the actor’s personal history with later struggles to hold on to his decrepit New York apartment and maintain his free-spirited life.

Born on the last day of 1924 in Grosse Pointe, Mich., Mead was the son of a wealthy businessman and his socialite wife who divorced before he was born. He floated through boarding schools and a number of colleges before his father found him a job in a brokerage house, which was not to his liking.

Openly gay since he was about 12, he left the East Coast in the mid-1950s, hitchhiked to California and studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. Inspired by Pull My Daisy, a short 1959 film based on the Kerouac play Beat Generation, he collaborated with Rice on The Flower Thief, a somewhat haphazardly structured film shot with a handheld camera that features Mead wandering through San Francisco coffeehouses and dives carrying a flower, an American flag and a teddy bear. ‘There was no plot, no planning,’ he told the Philadelphia City Paper in 2005. ‘It was … extremely spontaneous, and all of us were just crazy anyway.’ Village Voice critic J. Hoberman praised it as ‘the beatnik film par excellence,’ with Mead playing ‘a kind of Zen village idiot.’

In 1964, before Warhol was a pop-art mega-celebrity, he invited Mead on a road trip to California for the opening of a gallery show. They wound up making Tarzan and Jane Regained…Sort Of, a spoof of Hollywood adventure movies that was Warhol’s first partially scripted feature. It starred Mead as a Hollywood Tarzan cavorting with a naked Jane in a bathtub at the Beverly Hills Hotel, exercising on Venice Beach and having a bicep-flexing contest with Dennis Hopper as a rival Tarzan. Mead would appear in about 10 Warhol films over the next decade.

Calling himself ‘a drifter in the arts,’ Mead also acted on stage, winning an Obie Award in 1963 for his performance in the Frank O’Hara play The General Returns From One Place to Another. He published poetry and three volumes of his journals, displayed his art in the 2006 Whitney Biennial and read his poems weekly at Manhattan’s Bowery Poetry Club. ‘His whole campaign was, stay creative, active, busy. And he did,’ said filmmaker and friend Clayton Patterson.

He made his biggest splash in decades in 2003 in Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, a loosely connected series of vignettes with a wide-ranging cast including Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Tom Waits and Iggy Pop. Critics were moved by Mead’s performance as a janitor on a coffee break who doesn’t want to go back to work. The film ends with Mead closing his eyes to the strains of a favorite Mahler song, which resonated with his colorful past:

I am dead to the world’s tumult,

And I rest in a quiet realm!

I live alone in my heaven,

In my love and in my song!”

Taylor Mead, one of the authentic figures of the American avant-garde.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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